1614319_10152637197515922_2951934513909522622_oJohn Meyer’s new office has the works: a ping pong table, an espresso machine, piles of decorative books that no one reads. A poster bearing Meyer’s personal catchphrase — “Beast Mode” — hangs professionally framed on the wall. It’s everything a college-age worker could want, and Meyer, who dropped out of New York University last year, is counting on this youthful brand to propel him to success.

Meyer is the founder and CEO of Fresco News, a mobile news app designed with millennials in mind. “It’s like Instagram for the news,” Meyer says, scrolling through a beta version of app on his iPhone 6. This tagline, which multiple Fresco News employees recite to me, is an apt description. Rich in photographs and short on text, Fresco is a glossy news source crafted by and for the ADHD generation.

Only 20 years old, Meyer has been building and selling apps since his freshman year of high school. He’s the prototypical startup whiz kid: a tech-savvy, self-taught programmer with his own legion of Silicon Valley admirers. Fresco News, the latest of his much-hyped apps, has earned enough venture capital funding to secure a slick Manhattan office and a staff of bright-eyed recent college graduates. Meyer has everything he needs to make his mark on journalism — everything, that is, except journalistic experience. And as Fresco News prepares for its official launch, the Silicon Valley golden boy will have to win over a new audience: his readers.

On a Wednesday morning in April, Meyer is one of the only Fresco workers in the office. Usually there are more people here, at least two staffers from Fresco’s 21-person team, but the company just switched to a 24-hour model, with small subsets of workers arriving and leaving throughout the day, night, and early morning. Right now, between 10:30 and 11, they’re between shifts and Meyer is hanging out in the office kitchen, refilling a mason jar with water before the next set of workers arrive. These moments of downtime are rare in the rapidly expanding company. 18 of Fresco’s 21 staffers have been hired in the past six months, and everyone — including Meyer — is still trying to figure out just what the app will actually do.

Fresco News operates on a simple premise. Rather than hiring reporters to cover the news, the Fresco team combs through social media for pictures and videos from breaking-news events. When the team finds images of breaking news — a tweeted picture of a plane crash or Instagram footage of a protest, for example — they ask the owner for permission to use the image, then post the picture on the Fresco News app, along with a short description of the event it depicts.

“We consider ourselves like a crowd-sourced news company, where we pull in photos and videos from real people all over the world who are at the scenes of news events and are posting through their mobile devices to sources like Twitter and Instagram,” Meyer says. “Our goal is to empower anybody to be their own reporter, at least to a certain extent.”

The Fresco News app is not yet fully developed. Users can download a rough, preliminary version from Apple’s App Store, but the app has visible flaws. Images are organized haphazardly, and stories disappear from the app after a few hours. There’s no search feature anywhere.

But where Fresco’s user interface is clunky, its underlying business model is streamlined and forward-thinking. Millennials, group defined as being born between 1981 and 1997, are an increasingly powerful consumer group, and their consumption of news is largely facilitated through social media. A 2015 poll by the American Press Institute found that 88 percent of surveyed millennials used Facebook as a newsource, while 83 percent got their news from YouTube and 50 percent got their news from Instagram. Pinterest, Twitter, and Reddit also scored high, providing a respective 36, 33, and 26 percent of millennials with news. In hitching Fresco to social media, Meyer has tailored the app for this digital demographic. And now he’s counting on their business.

Meyer has no journalistic training, but has always had a good eye for upcoming tech trends. Born on Long Island into a family of computer enthusiasts, he was given free rein to experiment with the growing field. “We have pictures of me sitting on my parents’ laps on one of those old 1996 computers,” Meyer says. “Luckily we had one lying around the house when I was growing up, and I was left pretty independent. I had the freedom to just mess around with things on the computer.”

When he was nine, Meyer launched his first tech venture, video podcast series in which he reviewed his family’s Apple products. When he ran out of Apple products to review, he began writing to tech accessory companies, asking for free phone cases and headphones to review on his show. “I’d reach out like ‘hey, I’d love to do a review and demo of this on my podcast, would you like to send some of your products over?’” Meyer says. “I would do this for all my summers from age nine to 13 or so, and during the summers I would get like $10,000 of random stuff sent to my house.”

But his real passion for technology sparked in 2008, when he was 13 and watching a keynote address by Apple founder Steve Jobs. Jobs was introducing the App Store, and online hub where developers could sell software for the recently released iPhone. Meyer was intrigued. “I’m watching it and they’re labeling it as something that can enable anybody with an idea of anything to build it yourself, and through the App Store, distribute it to hundreds of millions of people,” he says. He had many ideas for apps, but quickly discovered that software programming has a steep learning curve.

“The App Store had just come out so there was like only one book available that kind of told you how to get started, but it also had a prerequisite of five years of other programming experience, which I did not have,” Meyer says. Undeterred, he set about compressing the five years of programming experience into a single summer. In the months between his last year of middle school and his first year of high school, he immersed himself programming languages, eventually building his first simple app: a flashlight, which ran on the light from the iPhone’s camera flash. By the time he graduated high school in 2013, Meyer had built over forty apps.

Fresco News began like every other app Meyer has designed. He spotted a problem and attempted to solve it with technology. In this case, the problem was the news industry’s often-chaotic scramble to incorporate social media into their coverage. As social media use expands, the first pictures and videos from the scene of a news event often are often captured by people on their phones, rather than by professional reporters. Called “user-generated content,” these social media dispatches are increasingly included in reports from official news outlets; television stations, for example, will air cellphone footage of a fire, while websites embed tweets from a crime scene. But sometimes user-generated content competes with coverage from official news sources, which arrive to the scene after the initial footage has hit the internet.

Peter Sterne, a media analyst and reporter for the digital publication Capital New York, says social media has reinvented breaking-news coverage, with user-generated content often reaching a greater audience than reports from news agencies. “Take the East Village explosion,” he says of a March building explosion in New York City. “Right after it occurred, I watched [livestream] Periscope feeds to see what was happening in the area. Then I watched the cell phone video that someone had shot of the explosion itself, which was played on all the major networks.”

Meyer hoped to create a more consistent approach to user-generated content, one that used social media to report events in real time. “The goal, originally, was to create some sort of new direction in terms of a news product, because there were so many new attempts [at approaching news] that it was clear that we’re in this kind of limbo period where a lot of people don’t know where it’s going,” he says. “I just thought, why don’t we see if we can develop a more visual approach to news on mobile?”

Meyer was a freshman at New York University at the time, and already growing frustrated with the computer science program in which he was enrolled. He had just released his best-reviewed app yet, a program called Perfect Shot which uses face detection technology to automatically take group photos when everyone is smiling and looking at the camera. “I thought it’d just be a cool thing,” Meyer says of Perfect Shot, “but then a week or two after I launched it, I got this email from a woman about how she thought it was great because she worked with blind kids, who, through this app I’d developed, could take their first photo because they didn’t have to see anything or click a button. And that was amazing, that that could be a byproduct of some random little idea I had.”

By contrast, he felt unfulfilled in his schoolwork. “I’d already done so many great computer science projects that I loved that it was like going from developing apps that were used by millions of people to developing very simple, almost nonsense stuff in the class,” he says. He wanted to drop out. And Fresco News gave him the perfect excuse to do so.

Meyer slowly stopped attending classes during the second semester of his freshman year. As his schoolwork dropped off, his work on Fresco News accelerated. He enlisted two friends to help design the app, and began scouting for venture capital firms that might provide financial backing for his young startup. But while Fresco’s philosophy asserts that anyone can be a journalist, Meyer’s lack of journalistic qualifications soon became visible. The tech world, where Meyer is most familiar, is notorious for throwing money at promising apps. This April, an app that facilitates gambling bets for video game tournaments scored $12 million in venture capital funding, while a digital music-making app pulled in $38 million in funding. A messaging app that only allowed users to send the message “yo” infamously earned $1 million in venture capital last year.

But investors are less confident investing in news organizations, particularly in those that have yet to prove their financial stability. “We learned very quickly that in the media space today, investors take absolutely no risks,” Meyer says.

This investor reluctance can be partially attributed to a changing news climate. The rise of digital news publications has spurred a trend toward short articles that can be easily read on mobile platforms. The digital boom has come at the expense of some longer-form print publications, which have struggled to stay in business in the face of readers’ dwindling attention spans. “Generally speaking, most people are more interested in shorter reads than longer ones,” Jeremy Barr, a media reporter and editor at Capital New York says. “There’s been such a proliferation of news content, and, considering that mobile is becoming an extremely popular platform for reading news, it just makes sense to keep things short.” Fresco is a champion of short-form journalism, but its status as a news organization meant funding would not come easily.

To counter Fresco’s credibility issue, Meyer went on a media blitz, giving interviews to newspapers, blogs, and television stations in an attempt to generate hype around the app. Bicoastal flights became routine for him, flitting between the CNBC television studios in New York City and tech meetups in California’s Silicon Valley. Slowly, over the course of months, money trickled in, first from a student-run venture capital firm in Boston, then from investors in California, then from a Tampa, Florida television station that wanted access Fresco’s curated feed of breaking-news images. By January 2015, less than a year after Meyer dropped out of NYU, his company had amassed $210,000 in startup funding. All they had to do was finish their product.

Meyer hopes to relaunch the Fresco app in June. The user interface will be sleeker, clumsy controls replaced by more interactive features. He’s even identified a way to raise revenue from the app, without hosting distracting advertisements: selling its photos to other news agencies. Building off Fresco’s partnership with the Tampa, Florida television station, Meyer plans to market Fresco’s photo database to other publications as a kind of inexpensive photo wire. “The goal in the long term is to create the next-gen, compelling news product on mobile that doesn’t have to be ad-supported because we’re supporting ourselves with what we’re doing on the business-to-business side,” he says.”

Fresco’s survival in its next ambitious steps depends on people like Morgan Boyer. In one month, Boyer will graduate NYU with dual degrees in politics and journalism. But unlike a number of her peers from the journalism program, Boyer is not applying to any newspapers, magazines, or broadcast news outlets. Instead, she’s signed on to be a content manager at Fresco News, running app’s daily news coverage as it approaches its official relaunch.

“I think John has figured out how to monetize news in a way that other people haven’t,” Boyer says. “I think media is always going to be required, so it’s just about finding the best way to make your money off it.”

After four years of journalism school, Boyer describes herself as feeling “disenchanted” with traditional journalism; like so many other millennials, she is looking away from long-form and print journalism, a shift Barr says is becoming common in young people. “News consumption habits vary greatly by age,” he says, describing the way people in their teens and early twenties rely on social media for their news. “Young people probably aren’t going to type in www.nytimes.com, but if there’s an article in their stream, they might consider glancing at it.”

Boyer works a night shift at Fresco, part of Meyer’s plan to run round-the-clock news coverage. A typical night at the office has her searching through trending topics on social media, then posting pictures to Fresco, along with a short caption — the “who, what, where, when, and why” of the news story. “There’s so much going on in breaking news that’s it’s difficult to stay on top of it, let alone have an informed voice,” Boyer says.

Fresco’s news coverage is deliberately abbreviated. Boyer’s job is not to conduct original reporting, only to incorporate existing news photographs into the Fresco News app. It’s a techie’s interpretation of journalism, and it might be working; as of April, the Fresco app had roughly 25,000 downloads in the Apple App Store, Meyer says.

But some industry experts think a push toward radically short-form journalism might be selling short young readers. “Young people have greater access to short-form content than older generations did, but that doesn’t mean that young people are only willing to read short-form stuff,” Sterne says. “I think Millennials definitely like quick reads as a way to get caught up on the news, but they’re also interested in reading long, magazine-style articles when they want to learn more about a subject.” He points to a number of journalism startups that run on opposite models as Fresco, promoting long-form and investigative journalism over Fresco’s photo-driven platform. The popularity of long-form news sites like “Longform.org, The Atavist, Byliner, The Big Roundtable, and BKLYNR,” are all testament to the notion that, despite the rise of social media, millennials have the attention span and appetite for weighty journalism, Sterne says.

In tying itself so closely to social media, Fresco inherits social media’s long-standing criticisms: that the strict character limits on Twitter create a reductive news environment, or that a picture on Facebook might be misleading, even fraudulent. Without a voice of journalistic authority — and Meyer is a proud outsider to the journalism industry — social media is a loose collection of individuals’ alleged experiences. Sometimes those experiences are true, or newsworthy, or interesting — but often not. “The future of journalism is sort of dependent on this notion that journalists have skills and experiences that differentiate them from the average citizen,” Barr says. “Journalists need to be needed. Unfortunately, also, there’s still no foolproof system for verifying the authenticity of citizen video and photos. Journalists, generally speaking, can be trusted to not make stuff up. There’s no professional responsibility, or code of ethics, for citizens.”

But with or without skeptics, Meyer is determined to build his company upward.

“We have a 21-person team now, and my job is making sure that everybody’s doing their best work and that they’re happy. I mean, it’s crazy,” Meyer says, gesturing around his office. “This level of responsibility is something that I’d never think would be this large.”